Most public defender programs face the challenges of high workloads, low salaries, large turnover. There are reals costs to these realities. A Florida report spells the costs out.

Public safety depends on many critical factors. One of those factors is having a capacity to insure indigent defendants accused of a crime have a lawyer able to timely and competently represent them when appointed by the court. Without that defender capacity, the resolution of cases is delayed and the reliability of the decision-making is subject to being undermined.

Therefore, turnover of public defenders costs taxpayers unnecessarily and inhibits the effective, timely resolution of cases in our criminal justice system.

Florida TaxWatch issued a report, When It Costs More To Pay Less (March 2014), which analyzed the salary and turnover rates for Florida prosecutors and public defenders. That report concluded that it costs more to replace prosecutors and defenders than it does to pay them higher salaries and retain those professionals, their experience and intellectual capital. The Florida report estimated this turnover wasted more than $6 million yearly. Id. at 9.

It identified the organizational problems created by attorney turnover:

  • lower productivity
  • overwork of remaining staff
  • lost knowledge
  • required training of new inexperienced staff
  • interviewing costs
  • recruitment costs
  • case delays
  • victim and witness frustration
  • justice delayed.

It  further identified the unquantifiable nature of these costs, “Most of these problems are intangible costs which cannot be fully evaluated. What is the cost of a sexual assault victim having to retell the crime to a replacement prosecutor, or of an accused feeling like the APD most prepared to represent them is no longer available on the trial date?” Id. at 10.

The Florida report noted that businesses estimate “the actual cost of staff turnover, and the estimates range from 50 percent of the annual salary to 400 percent, when the turnover is in senior leadership and highly technical positions.” Id. These are the very type of positions that defenders and prosecutors hold.

The report explained the nature of the waste of taxpayer money, “Thus, Florida is choosing to pay millions to replace ASAs and APDs, rather than increase retention through salary increases. This is not a good business model, and when you consider the importance of public safety and justice, the result is untenable.” Id. at 11.

It also identified the damage to public safety, “Filling slots opened suddenly by resignations, and transferring caseloads among ASAs and APDs prejudices productivity and efficiency, and is detrimental to the criminal justice process in Florida. Justice delayed is often justice denied, and when this occurs public safety is jeopardized.” Id. at 12.

There is a more prudent use of funds according to this Florida TaxWatch Report, “Florida TaxWatch is focused on public safety and the prudent use of tax resources. In this instance the smart justice solution is to pay higher starting salaries to attract better talent and be competitive with neighboring states.” Id.